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Saturday, January 15, 2005

A Much-Needed PR Offensive Against Wal-Mart

From the January/February issue of The Humanist:

What good is $250 billion in revenue if nobody loves you? Yesterday, Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott launched a public relations campaign aimed to restore the company's tarnished image. He's begun lashing out at the company's critics, claiming Wal-Mart is the victim of a misinformation campaign. Displaying its trademark light touch, Wal-Mart placed 100 full-page advertisements in major newspapers laying out its side of the story. The advertisement declares, "everyone is entitled to their own opinions about our company, but they are not entitled to make up their own facts." But Wal-Mart presents an incomplete and dishonest account of how it treats its employees. Here's the straight story:

DENYING HEALTH CARE BENEFITS: Wal-Mart brags about the generous benefits package it extends to employees. But the company fails to mention that "only 40% of the company's one million U.S. employees are currently enrolled in its healthcare plan, leaving close to 600,000 of its employees acquiring health insurance elsewhere — or not at all." Part of the reason behind this embarrassingly low uninsured rate – the national rate for insured employees at other large companies is 66 percent – could be the obstacles Wal-Mart places in front of workers seeking access to the health care plan. In spite of an astounding 60 percent annual turnover rate for its employees, the waiting period for enrollment eligibility was increased to six months for full-time employees and two years for part-time employees. If part-time employees make it over this hurdle, they still cannot buy coverage for spouses or children. It's also a wonder why their employees would even want to sign up for the health insurance plan as Wal-Mart "shifts much of the health care costs onto employees."

LEECHING OFF GOVERNMENT ASSISTANCE: In the advertisement, Wal-Mart continues on to praise itself for paying "almost twice the federal minimum wage" to its hourly store associates and listing the many benefits that come with employment. However, wages for many Wal-Mart employees are so low that they are forced to rely on government assistance – especially for health care. In Washington State, subsidized insurance for the workers who aren't covered by their employers costs taxpayers "several million dollars annually." Some state lawmakers have had enough. Legislation has been drafted that would "force big business to help pay for the state's Basic Health Plan." The legislation has been nicknamed the "Wal-Mart bill." And not without justification – of those enrolled in the taxpayer subsidized health plan who are employed, more work at Wal-Mart than anywhere else. Citizen interest in the bill "drew crowds of people to a hearing last week in Olympia." In Georgia, a new AFL-CIO study found 10,000 children of Wal-Mart employees were enrolled in Georgia's public health insurance program. As comparison, the next highest employer was Publix, with 734 children enrolled.

ABUSING HOURLY EMPLOYEES: Wal-Mart claims that "seventy-four percent of [its] hourly associates in the United States work full-time." What the company chooses not to address is the nearly 40 wage-and-hour lawsuits currently filed against them. In Washington state for example, a class-action lawsuit against Wal-Mart alleges that the corporation routinely "engaged in a 'systematic scheme of wage abuse'" in which it "pressured hourly employees not to report all their time worked, failed to keep true time records…failed to give employees full rest or meal breaks, threatened to fire or demote employees who would not work off the clock, [and] required workers to attend unpaid meetings and computer training." (Be sure to read about other ways Wal-Mart keeps its employees after hours and takes their hard-earned and dutifully deserved wages.)

DISCRIMINATION AGAINST WOMEN: The self-aggrandizing advertisement also highlights the claim that Wal-Mart promotes "from within." It just doesn't get into the messy details of who gets the "tap on the shoulder." According to a report citing findings from a 2003 article in The Financial Times, "two-thirds of the company's hourly workers are female [but] women hold only one-third of managerial positions and constitute less than 15 percent of store managers. And June 22 marked the certification of Dukes v. Wal-Mart as a class-action lawsuit brought against Wal-Mart for discriminatory practices in its wage payments and promotion decisions. The judge determined that the sex discrimination suit "presented largely uncontested statistics that women are paid less than men in every region, pay disparities exist in most job categories, that the salary gap widens over time and that the higher one looks in the organization, the lower the percentage of women.'" Up to 1.6 million current or former female employees stand to benefit from the suit.

DENYING WORKERS THE RIGHT TO ORGANIZE BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY: Of the many "perks" that should come with being employed at Wal-Mart, workers' right to organize – internationally "recognized as a core labor standard and a basic human right" – is not mentioned. This glaring absence is not a mistake: "Wal-Mart has consistently stated that it will not bargain with any union, and has repeatedly taken drastic steps to prevent workers from organizing in stores across North America." Managers at Wal-Marts even have a "hotline to call so that company specialists can respond rapidly and head off any attempt by employees to organize." The various strategies that Wal-Mart has employed to get around unions have resulted in the company being hit with over 100 charges, complaints, and rebukes by United Food and Commercial Workers, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions and the United States government. Despite facing grand jury investigations, National Labor Review Board judges, and class action suits, behind closed doors, Wal-Mart applauds its "union avoidance strategy."

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